The Duel is neither one of Anton Chekhov’s most commonly studied nor critically praised short stories, so it seems an unusual choice to translate into a film. This doesn’t necessarily mean the film adaptation will be poor… it just is. The film’s biggest problem is the script by Mary Bing and direction by Dover Koshashvili, and their inability to handle making complex characters likable beyond their flaws. As a result you wish they would all just walk into the sea that the director cuts too so frequently in attempt to add superficial beauty. And certainly the film isn’t helped by performances that involve every lead character constantly wearing a smug grin.
The mischievous and slimy Laevsky, played by a very trying Andrew Scott, is having an affair with the married Nadya, a painfully dull Fiona Glascott, and their ambivalence to their lifestyle has a few people in the town less than impressed. Laevksy becomes irritated realising he is both broke from drinking and gambling and is completely out of love with Nadya, so contemplates further selfishness in fleeing the town. This is our protagonist by the way. Chekhov’s genius was always finding the humanity in characters on the edge of society or heavily flawed, an aspect hugely missing from this adaptation.
Nadya, who is meant to be a smouldering temptress, instead comes across someone more reminiscent of your annoying boring friend who exaggerates their sex life to sound interesting. The fact men fall over themselves for her is resultantly unimaginable and distancing for any audience.
The only redeeming character (and actor) is Tobias Menzies as Von Koren, a man who despises Laevsky and eventually challenges him to the titular duel. Finally someone we can root for! However, for a film titled “the Duel”, the event itself should have all the tension of the high running emotions present in the story, but instead the scene rests on its laurels by taking place by a scenic waterfall rather than injecting it with enough dramatic weight for anyone to care about the outcome.
It would be easy to say that the film was undone by its obviously minuscule budget, reflected in daft costume and art direction, but when the basics of good storytelling are missing, it’s far easier to be nit-picky.
The Duel is released in Australia on June 7th
Director: Dover Koshashvili
Cast: Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, Tobias Menzies